14 Days: Bandits present security issue

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 14 days until the race.

Mark Androconis is a bandit, and he’s not afraid to admit it.

A junior in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Androconis has run the Boston Marathon the past two years to raise money for the Boston College Campus School -- a nonprofit special-education day school for students with multiple disabilities.

But since Androconis and most of the other BC students who run for the Campus School don’t come close to the $4,000 fundraising minimum the Boston Athletic Association requires for non-qualified runners, they’ve always run as bandits.

They follow all the same steps as registered charity runners, training just as hard and just as long, eating right, charting their progress to be sure to peak at the right time for the race, and hitting up friends and relatives for funds. It’s just that on race day, Androconis and his BC compatriots bus to Hopkinton from Newton with no bibs, no official numbers and therefore no guarantee they’ll actually get into the race.

“I found that it was pretty loosely structured,” the Westfield, N.J., native said of the scene in Hopkinton the past two years, “and it’s kind of every man for himself and try to get into the race any way.

“There’s so many people there that you kinda just wade into crowds and have to hope no one asks you, ‘Where is your number? You’re not supposed to be here.’ ”

After the bombings on Bolyston Street killed three, injured more than 260 and ended the 2013 edition of the marathon prematurely, the BAA and public safety officials are stressing the ban on unregistered or “bandit” runners -- which they are quick to emphasize has always been on the books, if not strictly observed -- will be enforced for 2014.

With the field at a record 36,000 due to the unprecedented interest in this year’s race, and the inclusion of more than 5,000 runners who were unable to finish in 2013, BAA executive director Tom Grilk said the course is at capacity. Bandits will only further stress the resources that are put in place for the race.

“First of all, I understand why people want to do it,” Grilk said. “I’m not insensitive to that. Particularly this year, because people have strong, emotional reasons to want to show resilience and determination and all of that.

“[But] most people respect [the ban]. Which is true of everything. All of us have to make decisions every day whether to respect certain rules, even if they’re inconvenient. And the overwhelming majority of the time, we all do it. And people do it in races, too.”

Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, estimated that in a typical year there might be between 1,000 and 2,000 bandits crossing the marathon’s finish line.

“As we started to get closer and closer to this year’s marathon, the interest around the world in this year’s marathon is certainly far greater than I had anticipated,” he said. “And if left alone -- meaning if we didn’t speak to this issue of bandits -- I certainly had a growing concern over the last couple of months that we could see thousands and thousands of bandits trying to get into a race that already is at capacity.

“How many thousands? There’s no way of knowing, but the interest around the world in this year’s event is so great that that number could have pushed us certainly over the top of what we could safely accommodate.”

Having an unknown number of unidentifiable people on the course alongside registered runners also poses a potential security risk.

“This year we anticipate huge crowds [of spectators] but we also understand that people will be more vigilant, more aware of their surroundings, people will be more concerned about safety than they have ever been in the past,” Schwartz said. “We understand that and the last thing we want to do is have anything happen that alarms the public.

“And we’re concerned that given the heightened vigilance and concern, [if] people start jumping onto the course, going over the [barriers], we think that may well alarm spectators. And this is just not the year for that.”

Androconis said he was disappointed when he learned that bandits wouldn’t be allowed in 2014, as he was looking forward to running again -- especially in light of what happened last year.

But he also understands.

So instead of hiking to Hopkinton and hoping to sneak onto the course, the BC bandits raising money for the Campus School will hold their own, alternate version of the race. On Sunday, April 13, supported by volunteers from the Campus School, they will run from Hopkinton to Copley Square on their own.

“It was disappointing. It’s hard to duplicate the energy you get on that day, going out and seeing all the fans out. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” Androconis said. “But at the same time, I think that you have to understand the magnitude of the situation and the security concerns that go along with that.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the city of Boston.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.